Ethiopia: Ethics During Crisis – From Missed Chances to Neighbor-Love

by Zelalem

Photo: Addis Standard

Businesses and schools are closed, and transport was disrupted to and from Lege T’afo, on the eastern outskirt of Addis Abeba, as the stay-at-home protest in Oromia enters its second day.


If I could recommend only one article from a foreign author to address Ethiopia’s current situation, it would be Donald Levine’s 2007 essay “Ethiopia’s Missed Chances” in *Interpreting Ethiopia*, which I edited with Professor Levine soon before his death.

Levine does three things in this essay, all of which are relevant for today’s crisis.

First, Levine looks back and surveys five “structural openings” in Ethiopia’s recent history: (1) the 1960 coup attempt, (2) the 1974 revolution, (3) the 1991 multiethnic transition, (4) the 1998 war with Eritrea, and (5) the 2005 election. Levine defines a structural opening as “a moment of fluidity in which actors imagine and deal with an array of options” which “harbor possibilities for change and action that are more or less constructive” (307). In each case, Levine argues that the opportunities presented by these structural openings were largely missed and violence prevailed.

Second, Levine analyzes three factors that may help explain why each of these past “structural openings” turned into violent “missed chances.”

First, Levine discusses “a culture of distrust” or “a deep-seated habit of suspiciousness…in social relations,” which leads to “an ethos of manipulative tactical scheming” in which “the open voicing of critical sentiments was intolerable” and “proactive para-political initiatives” are condemned (315). Levine argues that in each case, this pattern led to “mutual incriminations,” “hyper-vigilance,” “the fear of open public discourse,” and “excessive violence,” which made constructive cooperation impossible.

Second, Levine discusses an idealized “wendinet” or “masculinity ethic.” According to Levine, this ideal of aggressive masculinity leads to hyper-sensitivity, arrogance (“man yebiltal?”), and “politics…dominated by warfare” or what he calls “a kind of subliminal admiration for the ‘tough guy’ rebel who shoots his way into power.” Taken together, Levine argues, “The combination of distrust and wendinet…casts political options within a scheme of ‘metazez or meshefet,’ obey or rebel” (317). Thus, politics becomes a violent zero-sum game of absolute winners and losers.

Third, Levine discusses “the seduction of revolutionary ideologies,” which exhibit “a lack of respect for the common sense of the Ethiopian people.” These foreign ideologies are marked by “doctrinaire positions and polarizing sentiments,” which make constructive dialogue impossible or even seem like a betrayal of loyalty (319).

To sum up, Levine thinks “chronic suspiciousness and distrust, compulsive combativeness, and inattention to Ethiopia’s own traditions and resources” were major factors that caused Ethiopia to miss crucial chances in her past structural openings (320).

Finally, Levine suggests three ways forward for Ethiopia that could “enhance functionality” and help prevent “repeating the costly mistakes of the last half-century” in the face of new structural openings (319).

First, Levine thinks “wax and gold” has a place in Ethiopia’s “religious qene, secular poems, and social banter,” but he argues public discourse requires “more straightforward, transparent communication,” which can promote trust. Citizens must also “fight as hard within the system as we do against the system,” replacing the fight-or-flight paradigm with civic courage and participation (320).

Second, Levine calls for “self-understanding and self-appreciation,” which can help integrate Ethiopian traditions with “evolving realities” and move from “ideological fixities to pragmatic solutions” (321). Here, Levine emphasizes the importance of cultivating local scholarship, dialogue clubs, and media outlets. Rather than importing and imposing ideas like the eucalyptus tree (bahr zaf), which has proven destructive to Ethiopia’s environment, Ethiopia should define its own vision of “modernity,” starting with “age-old patterns of inter-group toleration” (321). As examples, Levine mentions multiethnic and multireligious pilgrimages like Zuqwala and Qulubi Gabrael, land ownership, shimgelina, gumi gayo, and clemency.

Finally, Levine calls for “a missing revolution” or the “disciplinary revolution” in Ethiopia. Pointing to Max Weber,_ he argues, “This involves a complex of traits including a commitment to an ethic of hard work, punctuality, reliability, responsibility, and a sense of vocation” (323). Levine adds here that “young people…are desperately in need of moral guidance,” so we could include a culture of mentorship within his disciplinary revolution. Overall, Levine opines, “[Self-discipline and excellence] requires an overarching vision of the good life in which those traits find meaning. I am doubtful that this can occur if the largest frame of reference is that of tribal loyalty. It requires something of transcendent significance” (323). Here, Levine proposes his ideal of “Greater Ethiopia,” though I am doubtful that is adequate.

We find ourselves in the middle of Ethiopia’s latest “structural opening” marked by “fluidity,” “options,” and the possibility of “change.” I do not recommend Levine’s article because it is flawless and thus to be copied and pasted. Instead, Levine leads us to ask the right questions for this moment without which our vision is impaired:

Are we examining the past and learning from it?

What are the patterns that led to previous missed chances and the present crisis?

What are the key adjustments and innovations that must be made to lead us into a new future, rather than clamping a lid on a boiling pot?”

What is “the overarching vision of the good life” which can offer “transcendent significance” to ordinary people and society as a whole?

In my judgment, that vision must include an ethic of neighbor-love or a basic commitment to the wellbeing of others beyond ethnicity, class, religion, and the other boundaries that offer us “identity” but so often intensify agony and societal crisis. Neighbor-love is a core teaching of Christianity, Islam, and humanistic morality, which promotes trust (against suspicion), cooperation (against combativeness), local traditions (against imposed ideas), and excellence (against unreliability).

In the days and decisions ahead, will we be able to see and treat one another as neighbors rather than “others” or enemies? This may determine whether we miss another chance or turn this structural opening into a new beginning for the common good and a more prosperous, just Ethiopia.

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